At a public debate titled “Do We Regret the Rise of the New Campus Left” Thursday, Oct. 18 in Commonwealth Auditorium, the College of William and Mary Debate Society discussed the issue of campus activism. The debate pitted two teams from the Society representing alternate views, then opened up discussion to the audience to allow floor speeches.
The teams on stage were comprised of two students each who took turns giving speeches arguing in favor of or against the tactics of the New Campus Left. The debate was prefaced with an explanation that the debaters had not picked the sides they were representing, and so their speeches did not reflect their personal views.
Middle East studies department chair Stephen Sheehi, who described himself not as a representative of his department but rather as an activist and a member of the community, opened the event by defining the ‘New Campus Left’ and highlighting the history and importance of direct action.
“I want to take issue first with the term ‘the New Campus Left,’” Sheehi said. “I think this is kind of a misnomer; activism has always been on campus, it’s never really died down. I think that there have been some issues on campus at William and Mary lately that have brought things to the forefront but it’s been around for a long time.”
However, Sheehi did point out a few ways in which he considers the campus leftist movement to be different from past decades.
“But what I would say if we’re going to pin down what constitutes the left now that might differ it from, say, the 60s … is that the issues that stem now from the left now on campus are issues of social justice … of structural racism, of gender and sexual equality,” Sheehi said. “These are things that concern the left but in ways that are seen as structural components of the way we live our lives in the United States as opposed to the mainstream liberals or what one would call the ‘left’ of the Democratic party.”
The team arguing in favor of the rise of the New Campus Left emphasized the historical roots of leftist campus activism and results brought on by the mobilization of students. It argued that such galvanization encouraged people in the middle to become more politically active and translated to broader application in policy as students were increasingly stimulated to vote. Ultimately, the debaters reasoned that activism which is characteristic of the New Campus Left is a better alternative to apathy.
The opposing team distinguished between ideology and policy, taking the stance that the tactics of the New Campus Left did not bring about substantial policy change, instead alienating moderates and making it easier for a unified majority of the right to undermine the left. The duo claimed that the aim of the New Campus Left became largely about engaging in a “politics performance” and what it means to be on the left. They argued this pushed students to mask their real politics in order to feel accepted.
When the debate opened up to audience speakers, many students voiced their concerns about the impact of the New Campus Left on those with differing ideals. The conversation then turned toward the expression of conservative voices, with some arguing that conservatives were shut down on campus while others took the counterposition.
Maggie Aschmeyer ’20, who spoke during the audience segment, expressed her surprise at the course of the debate.
“I figured out about this through Facebook, like everything that I do in my life,” Aschmeyer said. “I didn’t really know what [the debate] was going to be coming in; it kind of went in a different direction than I was expecting … it was talking about radical social activism versus not doing that. … The floor discussion was a little bit more what I was expecting, talking about conservatism versus liberalism and who’s allowed to speak and all that.”
President of the Debate Society Jessica Berry ’19 explained that the inspiration for the debate came largely from seeing this issue discussed among colleges and universities at a national level in recent years, but that she felt it was especially pertinent to the College this year.
“I think that we’ve been getting a lot more radical left action on campus recently in William and Mary at least this year,” Berry said. “And I know that there are a lot of people who have a lot of different feelings on it, and I’ve been seeing people on Facebook discuss it a lot, but we hadn’t really seen a lot of people breaking out of their social media bubbles to have discussions across the aisle.”
According to Berry, the Society thought the debate would be a good format for this discussion because students can see people representing different points of view on the issue within a structured yet friendly conversation. For instance, Sheehi said, most people would likely perceive an attempt to stop an Islamic State group extremist from giving a talk at a Mosque as reasonable, and that type of action is not entirely different from more regional leftist movements.
“Just sort of transpose it in another country, in another context, and that might help us think about perceiving how to discuss this with our fellow citizens,” Sheehi said. “And that fosters movement.”
Sheehi closed the event by noting the United States context of the debate and challenging students on both sides of the issue to remove themselves from their insular contexts.
“When one is thinking about these issues, what is permissible, what constitutes civility, who should be shut down, who should not be … you might want to pass these ideas and analogies over in other places,” Sheehi said.